More than meets the eye

Down Syndrome hasn’t exactly been a high profile issue and chances are, you had no idea that the first week of November is National Down Syndrome Awareness Week. More Than Meets The Eye, an exhibit by local photographer Sheilagh O’Leary, the woman behind the much lauded Human Natured—Newfoundland Nudes series, and commissioned by the Newfoundland and Labrador Down’s Syndrome Society, aims to change that.

Sarah Smellie takes a peek.

Sheilagh O’Leary is in her element. “I’m just having a fantastic time,” she raves. “This is really a heart warming project.”

Her latest photography project, More Than Meets The Eye, is a series of twenty eight portraits of kids with Down Syndrome, a genetic disorder which affects one in every eight hundred Canadians. Organized by the Newfoundland and Labrador Down Syndrome Society as an effort to increase awareness about the disorder and the services they provide, this project has O’Leary, who is as well known for her social activism as she is for her stunning photography, feeling right at home. “I’m a person who likes to put things out in the community and Down Syndrome is not an issue that very many people hear about,” she says.

The exhibition, which runs from the 30th of October to the 13th of November in the third floor gallery at the Arts and Culture Centre, also coincides with National Down Syndrome Awareness Week, which falls in the first week of November.

“I’m going to be working on this right up until opening night!” laughs O’Leary.

According to Jeff Hutchings, the Acting Chair of the Down Syndrome Society, open discussion about the issue is long past due. “Most people don’t understand Down Syndrome, or have never encountered it,” he says. “We want to let people know that this a genetic disorder, that it’s fairly common, that there’s lots that can be done to help kids with Down’s, and that they can be fully functioning assets to society.”

For example, the Down Syndrome Society offers many kids across the province primary speech and occupational therapy, which can help the kids along as they start school or enter the workforce. They’re presently lobbying the government for help in providing these benefits to many more children. They’re also looking into the possibility of a pilot project to analyze and document the degree to which the the kids benefit from these therapies as they grow up.

The need for heightened understanding of the issue doesn’t stop there.

“Some people don’t see or understand the potential of kids with Down Syndrome,” says Hutchings. “That can really be a problem.”

Barbara O’Neill, whose 21-year-old son, Matthew, has Down Syndrome, agrees.

“There are some places Matthew and I will go and people will address me on his behalf,” she tells me. “He doesn’t know that he’s any different from anybody else, so it can be very frustrating for him. It’s always so nice when you come across people that interact with him as an individual. That’s really important.”

A few months ago, a couple of the Society’s board members saw a similar photography exhibit that had been arranged by a kindred organization in the States. They were floored by how effective it was at generating the kind of public discourse they wanted to have, and brought the idea back to St. John’s.
As soon as Sheilagh O’Leary was mentioned, everyone knew it was the way to go.

“We knew that even though this was a fairly expensive venture for us, it would definitely have a huge impact, and that Sheilagh would really do justice to this,” says Hutchings. “We knew that she was an outstanding black and white photographer and we just thought about that impact: just no-frills, beautiful black and white pictures that make a loud statement.”

The project officially got underway two months ago and Hutchings can barely contain his enthusiasm. “You’re there, looking at [photos of] thirty kids that have Down Syndrome and you can’t help but ask ‘well, what else is there?’ That’s the part we’re going to cover throughout this exhibit, talking about where these kids end up and how successful they can be, talking about them as individuals and not just kids with Down Syndrome.”

“It’s just perfect,” he says.

Anna Hutchings, a seven year old Bishop Feild student and More Than Meets The Eye portraitee, is proud as punch to be in the show and would love it if you went and checked it out: “The pictures are really pretty. Please come and see our pictures!”

More than Meets the Eye opens with a reception on Thursday, October the 30th from 7pm until 9pm at the Arts and Culture Centre. The exhibit runs from October 30th to November 13th, in the third floor gallery of the Arts and Culture Centre.